March 3, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Swan Theatre

Has it really been nine months since I last saw this production? When the Russian ensemble from the Chekov International Theatre Festival visited Warwick Arts Centre back in May 2006, I was only a few plays into the Complete Works Festival, and at the time it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. Funny, moving, fast, stylish, musical, visually stunning and, especially considering it was performed in Russian, one of the clearest tellings of a Shakespeare play I’d ever seen.

Nine months later, nothing’s changed. I’ve only seen one play that I’ve considered more successful, and that only by a pinch (Dash Arts’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’). The standing ovation, flowers and multiple encores were fully justified in a production that yet again reminded me why I’ve chosen to give up so much of my life to this project.

I’ve written about this production before, so I won’t try to give a full run-down. Instead, I’ll stick to a list of the highlights. The moment when Toby, in his drunken rage, punches Maria to the crowd in the middle of a raucous drinking scene is one of the most effective individual moments I’ve ever seen on the stage, instantly stunning an audience into silence. Then, as he sobs on her back in apology and she downs vodka shots, the two of them start to sing to the music until she is table-dancing to a Russian anthem- a completely triumphant moment which drew a round of applause.

At least eight of the performances are among the best in the Festival. The three boys playing women are utterly believable, and Andrey Kuzichev’s layered performance, as a man playing a woman playing a man, is uncanny. Igor Yasulovich’s Feste drew several individual rounds of applause for his songs, money-grabbing antics and general perception on stage. Sir Toby is the most believable drunk I’ve yet seen on stage, and Dmitry Dyuzhev’s Sir Andrew clowns for all he’s worth, whether wrestling invisible foes to the floor or screaming at the sight of Cesario. Antonio remained a grizzled, sober presence among the hilarity, and the bewildered Sebastian became a force of pure joy as he was won by Olivia. Finally, Dmitry Shcherbina’s Malvolio is a strait-laced butler, nowhere near as callous as other Malvolio’s, and his final comeuppance as he served drinks at the wedding party was truly satisfying.

The direction was immaculate, as scenes overlapped and the words of exiting characters resonated over the new action. Comedy and pathos were brought out of tiny moments – one highlight was Orsino, after the revelations, approaching Sebastian as his new ‘bride’, before realising his mistake and giving a manly apology. On the other hand, Malvolio’s reading of the letter descended into tears of thankfulness, the comedians looking uncomfortably down at him as he sobber on the floor, the first half closing on Toby’s line ‘He will run mad’.

I could watch this production several more times and still love it- it is simply the best ‘Twelfth Night’ I have ever seen, and it was a pleasure to see the Stratford matinee audience responding with the best reaction I’ve yet seen to a play. With only four plays left to go, it’s good to see the atmosphere still so strong!

Posted in Theatre review